Gulf oil spill as a lesson on humans in nature

Save tourist beaches or marine life? Protect coastal homes or marshes for birds? Such choices during the Gulf oil spill point to a need to rethink human life on the planet -- just as the spill itself does.

Some eco-disasters are so huge they force humans to rethink how to better coexist with nature on a delicate planet. The mass killing of birds by the pesticide DDT, for instance, helped trigger the 1960s environmental movement.

Now the Gulf oil spill may be one of those moments for mass reflection.

Millions of barrels of crude oil have entered the aquatic food chain since BP’s rig collapsed April 20. The spill itself is bad enough, but every day people from Florida to Texas are being forced to make difficult choices that pit the interests of humans against those of wildlife.

A few examples of this sudden triage:

Should the limited number of plastic water booms be used to protect certain endangered birds in marshes or the hatchery areas for shrimp, thus helping shrimp fisherman?

Should chemical dispersants be used to keep the oil from reaching tourist beaches even though that might then leave the oil stuck in the Gulf’s depths, creating oxygen-free “dead zones” for decades?

Should government build sand barriers to protect shorelines near coastal homes or to wall off the nesting grounds of species such as Kemp’s ridley turtles and the brown pelican?

One of the hardest questions is this: Will this finally spur us to cut oil consumption after witnessing one of the biggest environmental disasters in history?

This spill should serve as a catalyst for making difficult trade-offs and resetting priorities so as to rebalance the needs of humans and nature. This is a far more constructive exercise than wallowing in anger at BP’s mistakes or the government’s halting response to the crisis.

“We all need to take a hard look at how we’re living,” Larry Schweiger, head of he National Wildlife Federation, told the Associated Press.

Little in nature today remains untrammeled by human activity. Much of North America, for instance, was altered by native people long before whites arrived in 1492 – forests were burned and large mammal species were killed off. Defining what is truly wild or pristine is too difficult to return to an idealized sense of natural paradise. Even concepts of a sustainable use of resources are difficult as they rely on estimating the impact over centuries.

The task of sharing the land, air, and water with other species (and there are 8,300 species in the Gulf of Mexico) requires constantly redefining the proper place for humans in nature. It’s not as easy as simply walling off certain areas for protection or reducing consumption of resources. A more fundamental discussion is needed about values – a higher regard for life, a concern for future generations, an awe for the wonders of creation.

If any good is to come of the Gulf oil spill, it is to use the crisis to look deeper into the human reality on this planet. Only then might “mistakes” like an oil spill be avoided.

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